By Grady T. Birdsong, Vietnam Veteran ~
Conversation History Seminar, on 9 September 2023
It was not the most ferocious of flying machines in the sky, but it became one of the more important and most effective aircraft of the Vietnam War. – Talk by Cliff Lawson, US Army Helicopter Pilot & Vietnam Veteran
Those mechanical “Hummingbirds” viewed by many overhead in the battlefield sky, became a lifeline for some, an indefatigable workhorse for the boots on the ground, and an enduring symbol of America’s military might in Southeast Asia.
Those flying contraptions called helicopters (classified as rotorcraft or rotary-winged aircraft) changed many lives. For one young boy during the 1950s in Ohio, they determined his life’s destiny. At the time, he like others probably had not yet learned of the Leonardo da Vinci inspired ideas and drawings of flight through the air. Da Vinci, as with many of his innovations during the 15th Century, had created a conceptual drawing of a flying machine with a spiral airscrew to obtain lift off the ground. That concept finally became a reality in the 1930s but was not yet fully tested until the Korean War and then heavily applied to the war effort in Vietnam.
That young fellow, named Cliff later to become a Helicopter and Airline pilot, had talked his father into dropping him off at their little local sod-strip airport one fine day so he could watch the fabric-covered magical machines of the sky soar into and out of the airport. It would become the day’s highlight for him.
Cliff happened to become friends with an older boy in the High School band who worked at that little airport fueling and servicing planes. One day the kid asked his younger buddy, Cliff if he
wanted his airport line job, and that he would be going off to college soon. Cliff’s reply, “Hell Yes…” As a result, Cliff learned to fly paying for his flying lessons and pilot ratings all through high school and college by retaining that job his friend had handed over to him.
After college and ROTC graduation Cliff then completed the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officer Basic course. Uncle Sam then sent Cliff to rotary-wing flight school. He was already a commercial pilot, with instructor, instrument, and multi-engine ratings. However, at the time the Army desperately needed helicopter pilots. Even though he like others were told they might not make it through the course, flight school became a breeze for him. He graduated first in his class, humbly telling us in the listening audience, “Only because I knew all that stuff…”
After completing flight training, Cliff found himself assigned to a new unit being formed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. That new unit, C Troop, 7th Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry Regiment began training with the C model of Huey helicopter gunships (Bell UH-1 “Iroquois”). He recollected, “It was so new, it smelled new, you know, just like a new Cadilac…”
Finally arriving in Vietnam in November 1967, Cliff and his fellow pilots were called upon to prove themselves in the Tay Ninh and Di An (III Corps Tactical Zone) area of operation (AO) during the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968. Most of the tour consisted of supporting infantry units and helping them understand how to use the Air Cavalry since C Troop wasn’t an airmobile or transportation unit. Its mission was reconnaissance and short raids. They were to be the “eyes and ears” of the infantry. The mission was to find the enemy wherever they might be. At one point he lived on the ground with the infantry, sometimes affectionately known as “Grunts.”.
Cliff shared another story he remembered which summarized the enemy’s strategy during the war quite well, “One of the Brigade Commanders was overheard to have said, why don’t they come out and fight like men…Well, we quickly learned that they wanted to fight but on their terms…they weren’t stupid…therefore, we had to go find them…that was our job.”
Another tidbit in the talk that caught everyone’s attention was when Cliff talked about his Commanding Officer whom he piloted around the AO during part of his tour. Cliff showed a photo of him with the following verbal description of the man’s leadership capabilities. Cliff began by saying, “There he is, damn, quite a guy…when he first came to the unit he told us…uh, he probably had heard this from somebody else…but, when he took over our troop, he said the following, OK, men I know that sometimes the BS comes down from headquarters hot and heavy…and that crap just keeps coming and I want you all to know that I will try and catch it (Cliff cupping both arms upward with his hands in a bowl-like gesture)…but sometimes that stuff comes down so fast and furious that it spills over the side and it’s gonna hit you…gonna get on you, and I’m sorry!…” Cliff exclaimed that everyone was stunned and the overwhelming sentiment from then on was, “This is our guy!”
It turned out that the infantry unit they supported did not know how to use C Troop and their assets (Helicopters) or their mission. So, the C.O. approached Cliff and told him, “I’d like you to be the liaison for us to the infantry.” Cliff then told us, “I had to go out in the field and live with the infantry.”
His fellow pilots would fly all over their AO to find the VC/NVA and report back to HQ and it was Cliff’s job to relay to the grunts what those pilots found; “Here is what we found and here’s the map and here is where these people are…and of course the Division Operations Officer called us out on our intel methods, and told us, you guys can’t know that… Cliff replied, “Yes, we can, Sir, our pilots found them…here is where they are…” The Major still wasn’t buying it…so, Cliff and the men decided to challenge him, “Hey Major, how about a ride…”
They arranged for one of the recon pilots to take him up and over the area low and slow, “and of course, it scared the living crap right outta him…” He wanted out of there fast. Later, the message from the men to the Major, got through, loud and clear, “Believe us when we tell you we know where they are, Sir…”
Cliff shared a heartwarming story about him and his wife. You don’t hear these types of stories often. He showed us a photo of himself on his bunk writing a letter to his wife during his tour in 1968. And then what we didn’t expect to hear, came next, “My wife wrote me every single day…the whole time I was over there…now, sometimes I would receive four or five at a time because they couldn’t always get our mail to us…but that woman never missed a day.” Cliff then
confessed to us, “By the way, I am still married to that woman …!” That in and of itself described the essence of morale and sanity for most of us during this war, our bond with our loved ones back home.
Cliff shared quite a few personal observations and stories of his time in Vietnam with us, and I am positive it would take a book to write about all of his experiences. Some bordered on the ineptness of military operations, others on how the U.S. prosecuted the war, some about the little children trying to survive, and of course, those stories bordering on that one eternal question everyone who experiences combat, “How did I survive that one…?”
Answering our country’s call in the 1960s and surviving the war, Cliff came home to a nation that did not understand the depth of his service or sacrifice, but still, he and many other veterans dutifully returned to civil society after the war to further release themselves to their life’s destiny.
Fast forward fifty-plus years, Cliff Lawson retired from United Airlines, as a Captain of 777s, and is now a Certified Professional Photographer (check out Cliff’s Veterans Project): https://clifflawsonphotography.com/portfolio/veterans/
He recently gave this talk at a Coffee and Conversation Seminar (held the 2nd & 4th Saturdays of each month beginning at 9:30 am) in the new and expanding Broomfield Veterans Museum, 12 Garden Center, Broomfield, Colorado 80020. Hours: Tuesday & Thursday, 10 am – 2 pm & Saturday, 9 am – 3 pm. Everyone welcome. Donations welcome.
Since you readers missed this excellent talk and slide presentation titled, “Vietnam from the Air and the Ground: A Pilot’s View,” the veteran staff & volunteers (Docents) at the museum want everyone to know that you can still watch Cliff’s talk and other past presentations on the website in the Coffee and Conversation Archive. Look for the YouTube Channel link: http://www.broomfieldveterans.org/coffeeandconversation/
My objective in writing this article is to not only tell you about my friend, Captain Cliff Lawson, and what a fine man and photographer he is; but also, the fact that this outstanding new museum in Broomfield holds a vast amount of historical, educational, and resource information which focuses on our Nation and State’s military past for both young and old alike.
I also want you, the reader to know this museum compared with some of our Nation’s top museums has set a high standard with its many professionally designed displays of historical
artifacts along with obtainable educational resources in the library. I would encourage all area schools and our local citizenry to check it out. It’s a sparkling little gem of history.
Upcoming talks @ the Coffee and Conversation History Seminars:
14 Oct – Flint Whitlock, The Sand Creek Massacre (Colorado Military History)
21 Oct – Fred Martin, A Heroic Broomfield Aviator, Bill Bacon (Naval career of submarine hunter aircraft during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the personal experiences of Bill Bacon)
18 Nov – Brigadier General Christopher J. Petty USA (Ret), The Importance of History in Military Command (The importance of understanding military history and military operations from ancient times to present)
25 Nov – Don Cygan, No Silent Night – The Christmas Battle of Bastogne (a talk about his WWII book on the Battle of the Bulge)
9 Dec – Don Brookings, Christmas Party, Battle of the Bulge, (will present the story of this father who served with the 23rd Infantry Division at Christmas time in Luxembourg dressing as Father Christmas for the town children)
See you there!
Grady Birdsong, USMC ~ Veteran Advocate & Author ~ Vietnam 1968 – 1969